Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Tactical, Strategic and Existential Thinking

My thinking has been influenced by a small book called "Kissinger on Kissinger", in which Winston Lord asks him some basic questions, and Henry Kissinger purports to answer them. As a result of going to Yale, I don't care for the Harvard stance of pretending to invent everything first, and I suspect Henry himself doesn't actually believe much of what he says. I suspect, he dislikes Richard Nixon and merely has a habit of adopting other ideas for his own. He uniformly refers to his President as "Nixon", as in contempt, but gives the President credit for just about every worthwhile action of the Presidency, while being careful to note that "Nixon" never once countermanded Kissinger's initiatives. I never met either man, but I suspect we wouldn't have got along.

Nevertheless, the two of them have all my admiration for following paths I admire but might never have followed, except for a postgraduate course at Yale on Grand Strategy. It makes me a little sick to my stomach to hear talk of strategic and existential for intellectuals, while tactical talk is relegated to lesser folk, like cabinet officers. It echoes Emerson and Thoreau, those New Englanders who think of themselves as leaders of lesser folk. Having thus vented my spleen on two men I grudgingly admire, let me define these three terms in my own way, while openly stating the underlying thought process was most consequential for our tortured age. They probably would not completely agree with my analysis, but I must concede their arrogant one is terribly powerful.

Tactical plans are usually followed by young men doing what they have been told to do. Important ideas-- strategic ones-- are proposed by older leaders, so in fact the choice is usually made, between ideas by seniors. Curiously, "existential" is a term implying strategy where the continued existence of the state is at risk. Quite often it means war, chosen because available tactical choices (trade, tariffs, rearmament, etc.) risk loss of survival. Therefore, the side most likely to lose a war must be persuaded not to start one, often using the rhetoric that both sides will be losers. Confusion is created by the plain fact that every member of every state eventually does die, so death in war is existential, while death from stomach cancer is not. War is an existential threat to the state, while only occasionally feared by citizens. But little wars (Like Granada) are sometimes not necessarily existential. The modern state is said to have been created at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, essentially attaching the religion of the state to the religion of its sovereign, and thereby establishing permanent fixed boundaries for the states. Although it took years to negotiate, it essentially replaced strong religious control with strong secular rule without saying so, and established local rulership. The Industrial Revolution was made possible, and gradually arrived over the following century. Fixed agricultural boundaries gradually replaced tribal rule.

As nations came to be defined by their boundaries, everything else adjusted to them, as well, and dissolution of the boundary essentially signalled the death of the state in its former configuration, its economy, its religion, its language, and its entity in many other forms. In short, it became the most threatening of consequences. It was potentially the most devastating of existential threats, although it was sometimes unclear how tactical or strategic problems might lead to it. Tamper with Constitutions and cultures at your peril, since they may lead to existential disruptions.

Originally published: Tuesday, June 04, 2019; most-recently modified: Tuesday, June 04, 2019